By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer
— You’ve heard the flu sermon more often than you’ve heard about the Korean guy doing the Gangnam dance:
Get a flu shot. Wash your hands. Cover your cough. Stay home when you start getting sick.
The pleas from health officials — who truly want to reduce something that can be deadly — are sincere and well intentioned. Their admonishments are also pretty much useless in accomplishing the goal of significantly reducing the spread of the flu or flu-like illnesses.
That’s not likely to change for two reasons.
The flu vaccine, even when it matches the strain of the year, isn’t all that effective — something that won’t change because flu vaccines are bad business for drug companies.
And as for the more effective approach of people staying home when they are sick, forget it. Sick days are bad business for businesses.
The effectiveness of flu shots has been greatly inflated in the past with claims they are 90 percent effective. A recent comprehensive study, led by former state epidemiologist Michael Osterholm at the University of Minnesota, found the vaccines are only 59 percent effective.
“Today’s flu shot is like an iPhone 1.0,” Osterholm said. “What we need is an iPhone 10.0.”
But drug companies aren’t much interested in finding new generations of flu vaccines — or any new vaccines really. They’d far rather make drugs.
Vaccines are used at most several times in a lifetime; drugs are often used every day. Therefore, the market for drugs is much greater than the market for vaccines.
The highest-grossing vaccine has annual sales of about $1 billion. A drug for diabetes or a drug such as Viagra can have sales of $7 billion a year or more.
You do the math.
Which leaves staying home, eating your chicken noodle soup and watching “The Price is Right” when you’re sick.
Businesses have been steadily reducing the number of paid sick days provided to employees with many jobs offering none — you get sick, you take unpaid time off.
And many businesses offer no specific sick days, but rather Paid Time Off. The PTO is a set number of earned paid days off to be used for vacation, sick time or any other reason. So, if you have 10 PTO days and get sick, are you going to use a couple of your days to stay home? No, you’ll cough on your co-workers so you can take your days off when you feel good and the weather’s nice and you can go to the lake.
And there’s always the whole guilt problem. Employees don’t want to let co-workers down and often have a sneaking suspicion that even though the boss said people should stay home when they’re sick, they may not really mean it. This is particularly a problem in Minnesota where our work ethics and guilt levels are unreasonably high.
And when parents are reluctant or financially unable to take time off from work, their children are much more likely to be sent to school sick — further fueling an outbreak.
A few major cities require a minimum number of paid sick days that must be provided by businesses with the number of days increasing for larger employers. Connecticut just became the first state to require paid sick leave, though businesses with fewer than 50 workers are exempt.
And President Obama has called for a federal sick-day mandate that would require employers with 15 or more workers to provide seven paid days for their own or a family member’s illness.
So government could step in to reduce influenza outbreaks in two ways: requiring businesses to give paid sick time and by sinking serious money into developing and producing an effective flu vaccine.
Both, of course, run up against those who worry about government intrusion and those who want less government spending.
So, for now anyway, cover your cough, get a flu shot and hope you’re lucky.
Tim Krohn is a Free Press staff writer. He can be contacted at 344-6383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.